The two Planning Board incumbents who haven't yet responded to my e-mail questions spoke at a local candidates forum last night. It's hard to draw conclusions from half an hour, but my first impressions are that all three running for two spots on the board appear knowledgeable and qualified - a happy state of affairs for such important positions in town.
So then we come to the issues. I was puzzled by the tone of questions from some of the panel, particularly former selectman and state rep John Stefanini, implying that Framingham is a difficult and sometimes hostile place to do business for developers. Sorry, but looking around this community compared to surrounding towns, I find it hard to conclude that Framingham is under-developed and under-invested. Perhaps it is if you look at Worcester (his comparison); but he might also want to look at other communities in MetroWest. Is it perhaps easier to build a major project in Sudbury? Wayland? Southborough? I doubt it.
I got the impression that Planning Board Chair Tom Mahoney agreed with Stefanini's premise. I was somewhat unhappy at the chairman's comments regarding the Planning Board's role. As I heard and understood him, he doesn't want the Planning Board spending time on granular details such as types of trees, but instead sticking to a more broad picture. I, on the other hand, believe that some details often considered "frills" are actually critically important to the aesthetics and impact of a project.
I'm generally impressed by Carol Spack's credentials, knowledge and command of issues, whether she is talking about zoning, the development process, neighborhoods, or pedestrian issues. Carol lives in my neighborhood and I've run into her at a number of different town events. She's bright and knowledgeable, and I'm glad she's willing to volunteer her time for the town.
Unfortunately, the forum was scheduled on the Jewish holiday of Purim, so candidate Stephen Meltzer couldn't attend. However, you can see his answers to my questions here, as well as more about him on his blog.
One issue that was touched on briefly at the forum but needs much more examination, is the fact that Framingham has a limited amount of open space left for new development. Instead, the town needs to work more on attracting redevelopment of existing buildings and projects. Carol said she's been asking a question that I've also been wondering for years: How is it that so much apparently valuable commercial property in town has been left vacant for so long, including places like the old lumber business in Saxonville or the abandoned gas station in Nobscot?
The need to make Framingham redevelopment more compelling for developers, AND to attract and design the kind of redevelopment projects that will improve the town (including walkability), are critical issues that go far beyond the planning board. In my opinion, Framingham has structural governmental issues making it difficult to move forward, including a part-time huge legislative body working on complex issues that need more full-time attention.
One of my questions got asked at the forum, about pedestrian-friendly development issues. My notes are still in my car, but as I recall, Carol talked about possibly setting up a subcommittee to look at certain pedestrian issues, creating more trails and ensuring easements when new development blocks existing, traditional walking routes.
Tom Mahoney said that Framingham planning boards used to allow residential developers to build subdivisions without sidewalks - in fact, he complained that the area where he lives has none - but that they now do require sidewalks on at least one side of the street. I was happy to hear that emphasis on sidewalks, but also hope he understands that walkability means much more than installing sidewalks. If you can't walk TO anywhere, you don't have a walkable neighborhood. If you have a pedestrian-hideous streetscape, nobody will be walking even if there are sidewalks. Most of my neighborhood has no sidewalks, but I still consider it quite walkable, because of the friendly streetscape and the fact that I can walk to the post office, hardware store, branch library and other destinations.